Turpan Travel Guide

Written by Sally Guo Updated Oct. 13, 2021

The mention of the name "Turpan" and the famous "Silk Road" is the first thing that comes to mind. Located in the middle part of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, centuries ago it was known as Gushi. Since the Ming Dynasty's renaming of the area with the meaning "land of fertility and opulence", Turpan is both a mysterious and yet an extremely beautiful place with its long history and importance along the Silk Road. At that time, it was a strategic stop on the overland trade route linking China with India, Persia (Iran), and Rome.

Located in the Turpan Basin, it has long been known as "Fire State" or "Land of Fire" for its extreme summer heat. This is due to it being in the second deepest inland depression in the world, with more than 4,000 sq. kilometers of land situated below sea level. It has recorded some of the hottest summer days in China, with temperatures as high as 130 degrees F. or nearly 55 degrees C.

Turpan is unique with a combination of the ancient civilization and the present elegant demeanor of modern times, with its lovely straightforward, simple yet passionate characteristics and charm. Turpan is bound to make any visitor to the region want to do two things: the first is to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings and buy many bargain-priced souvenirs from the stallholders and the second is to return another day and bring friends with them.

Turpan History

With a long history, Turpan was the converging place of oriental and western culture as well as the intricacy of religions. Before Islam established a firm grip on central Asia, the Uyghurs practiced Buddhism, Manicheanism, Nestorian Christianity, and other religions. Priceless examples of this culture were found in caves at Bezeklik, near modern-day Turpan.

It was also one of the two centers of Uyghur culture. Here, through the appreciation of Nazirkuma (mask dance of Turpan), Macilaifu (traditional singing and dancing of Uighur people), Mukamu (folk music of Uighur people), colorful and fresh flowery dresses, and the simple but elegant architecture, travelers can fully experience the classic Uighur folk customs.

Turpan has in excess of seventy ancient cultural sites including primitive city sites, ancient grave clusters, grotto temples, beacon post houses, cliff paintings, and much more. As to the unearthed cultural relics, which are yet to be counted and recorded, number in the tens of thousands. At this stage, it is not possible to give a precise number. Many relics have found their way overseas and preserved in the museums located in Germany, Japan, Russia, Britain, Indian, North Korea, and the United States to name a few. Among all the cultural relics, it is those ones representing the culture of the Silk Road that are most treasured. Consequently, the skill and time required in analyzing the significant historic value of the most precious remains and the well-known ones may be some time away. It is the lifetime task of paleographers.

A couple of missionaries who spent many months in the region during the 1920s and '30s, describe the oasis such..."Turfan lies like a green island in a sandy wilderness, its shores lapped by grit and gravel instead of ocean waters, for the division between the arid desert and fertile land is as definite as that between shore and ocean. Its fertility is amazing, and the effect on the traveler, when he steps from the sterility and desiccation into the luxuriance of Turfan is overwhelming." … This is but one of the reasons visitors make many more than just one visit to Turpan. I am sure you will too.

Turpan Weather

Turpan's climate is not as harsh as many people imagine it to be. The best time to visit Turpan is Autumn when it has comfortable daytime temperatures and cool nights. Moreover, various fruits get ripe and the area is shrouded in a sweet scent of fragrant fruits during this time of the year.

Turpan has an arid desert climate, dry, hot and windy. Nicknamed, "the Oven", the region is very dry and extremely hot during summertime due to long sunshine time and lack of rain throughout the year.

  • Spring: Spring does not really get underway until March and continues until May. The changeable weather condition, strong winds, arid days make it a poor time to visit.
  • Summer: The weather in summer is extremely hot, particularly for the area around the Flaming Mountain with some places reaching 48 degrees centigrade. The area sees little rainwater during summer but regional heavy rain sometimes causes flooding.
  • Autumn: Autumn is no doubt the best season to visit Turpan. It has clear skies and brisk air and the winds are less strong during this period.
  • Winter: Winter is cold and dry.

Turpan Fruits

As a result of its unique weather characteristics, Turpan is abundant with fruits like grapes and watermelons and in China is widely known as "the City of Grapes". Among the grape varieties, the seedless white grape is especially well known and many farms have drying towers for turning them into raisins. The local raisins are renowned worldwide for their beautiful dark green luster, high sugar count, and rich in vitamin C content.

Attractions in Turpan

Apart from being the fruit bowl of China for grapes and melons, the geographical layout of the land provides so many and varied scenic spots. The Turpan population have some unique folk customs too that have evolved over the centuries which present today's visitor with an opportunity to experience how the locals lived so many years ago. Here you can see the ancient city of Gaochang built in the 1st century B.C. and originally called Gaochangbi, which used to be a garrison town. Also Jiaohe, another ruin of an ancient Silk Road town, located about 13 miles west of Turpan.

The fresco of the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves stands high on the cliffs of west Mutou Valley under the Flaming Mountain, 45 km east of Turpan. Of the 83 original caves, 57 caves currently remain. The murals cover an area of over 1, 200 square meters in more than 40 caves.

To tempt the visitor with more treasures of a bygone era, the Ancient Tombs at Astana will leave you with more questions than historians can answer. Add to that the Sugong Tower, a piece of unique Islam architecture from the Qing Dynasty and the Flaming Mountain, so full of color of fairy stories and legends. Many of these legends are mentioned in the famous novel ‘Pilgrimage to the West.

Turpan's greenery owes its existence to the underground channels called Karez. These underground tunnels rate as one of Asia's more intriguing and historic public works. Uyghur and Chinese versions of Karez technology date back over 2,000 years. The magnificent Karez, an irrigation system of wells, transports water underground, reducing water loss from seepage and evaporation and surfacing in the cultivated areas. A Karez is fed entirely by gravity, thus eliminating the need for pumps. In 1845, Lin Zexu came to the Turpan area. He was impressed by the Karez technology and encouraged its spread to other areas. Under his leadership, more than 100 Karez were constructed. Statistics for 1944 show that there were 379 Karez in the Turpan area. By 1952, there were 800, with a total length of 2,500 km, equivalent to the length of the Grand Canal. Today there are over 1000 Karez in the Turpan area. The Karaz Water System is now the life source of Turpan and Xinjiang.

With all of this agriculture, another charming aspect is at harvest time when the appealing love songs by the grape picking girls in the orchards can be heard. The "Baza" customs have their special flavor with the charming Uighur singing traditional songs that are remarkable for their melodious originality. You may be lucky enough to experience them dancing through the grapevines too. Notwithstanding all of these wonderful features, the rhinoceros' fossils in the region have their own widespread fame, all of which have made Turpan a treasure-land bringing together the cultural and historical relics of ancient times and a natural museum of geography and history combining "Fire State", "Wind State", "Irrigation" and "Oasis".

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